UAMS Grant Will Test Nano-Based Cancer Treatment

Sep 11, 2015

UAMS researcher Vladimir Zharov, Ph.D., D.Sc., was awarded a $1.7 million grant by the National Cancer Institute to clinically test a technology that uses lasers to detect and destroy melanomas without harming normal cells.

Theranostics uses lasers to find the melanoma tumors through a process known as photoacoustic flow cytometry. The lasers penetrate the skin and superficial veins and heat the natural melanin nanoparticles in melanoma circulating tumor cells (CTCs). This produces a sound that can be detected by an ultrasound transducer attached to the skin. Lasers also destroy the CTCs as they are identified.

The technology could be 1,000 times more effective at detecting CTCs than current technology, according to a press release from UAMS. It is capable of examining a patient’s entire blood volume in real time. Current technology detects CTCs by testing small blood samples drawn from patients.

Zharov is director of the Arkansas Nanomedicine Center at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. He’s also a professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Otolarynology-Head and Neck Surgery.

In the press release, Zharov explained that the new technology builds on the fact that high temperatures created by lasers evaporate the liquid surrounding light-absorbing nanoparticles, creating vapor nanobubbles as a result. The fast expansion and collapse of those tiny bubbles creates sound and kills the CTCs. A single pulse or a few pulses can kill the CTCs without harming normal cells.

The technology has been studied in animals and then humans, so Zharov and his team are ready to develop its second generation. He said they will focus on the most aggressive form of melanoma.

As part of their study, Zharov and his researchers found that many standard procedures, particularly vigorous manipulation of the tumor and some types of biopsies and surgery, can release cancer cells from a tumor into the body, causing the cancer to metastasize. Researchers plan to address this problem by using a portable photoacoustic flow cytometer to analyzes particles in real time and then destroy the CTCs. A commercial, cost-effective version of that tool will be developed to use not only with cancers but also infections and cardiovascular diseases.

Zharov said in the press release that his team will be studying whether the treatments can be used by themselves or are better combined with conventional cancer therapy. The team will start with a large group of healthy volunteers to test if the therapy can cause harm.